Declaring North Korea in violation of international treaties, the U.N. nuclear agency raised the stakes in the standoff Wednesday by sending the dispute to the Security Council — a move that could lead to punishing sanctions.
Russia and Cuba refused to join in, saying the International Atomic Energy Agency's decision would detract from a flurry of diplomatic efforts aimed at easing the crisis.
Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei said the IAEA would continue to press for a peaceful solution, but he said months of intransigence on the part of North Korea's reclusive communist regime had left the U.N. nuclear watchdog no choice.
"The current situation sets a dangerous precedent," ElBaradei said. He said North Korea was only a "month or two" from producing "a significant amount of plutonium" that could be diverted for making weapons, now that IAEA inspectors no longer controlled the country's nuclear programs.
Underscoring the need to keep the North from developing nuclear weapons, U.S. intelligence officials warned on Wednesday that Pyongyang has an untested ballistic missile capable of reaching the western United States. The North Korean missile is a three-stage version of the Taepo Dong 2, said Vice Adm. Lowell Jacoby, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency.
As CBS News Correspondent Barry Petersen reports, the U.N. Security Council could impose sanctions, but the North claims that would be an act of war. U.N. sources tell CBS News that sanctions are not in the cards and they would be "a bad idea".
The Chinese said this week they want the U.S. to take the lead.
"We hope to see dialogue between the two sides at and an early date," said the Chinese Foreign Minister.
But that may be easier said than done.
"Because there no trust built between the two capitals, Mr. Bush has a very bad image of Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Il has a very bad image of Mr. Bush," says Changsu Kim a Korea defense expert.
Although North Korea has held to a voluntary moratorium on flight tests of its long-range missiles, U.S. officials fear that Pyongyang likely will conduct new tests.
In its resolution passing the standoff to the Security Council, the IAEA's 35-nation board of governors said North Korea has not met its obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and other accords.
Because the North has expelled U.N. inspectors, the agency "remains unable to verify that there has been no diversion of nuclear material" for weapons use, it said.
North Korea has said it would consider sanctions an act of war, and it was unclear whether the Security Council would impose any, especially in light of objections from Russia and China, permanent council members with veto power.
ElBaradei suggested the Security Council would stop short — for now — of punishing the already impoverished country with sanctions.
"The message is that "let us first try a diplomatic solution as we are trying in Iraq," he said. "But if it doesn't work, I haven't heard any member say that the Security Council is not considering other options."
In abstaining from Wednesday's vote, the Russian delegation said it considered "the sending of this question to the U.N. Security Council to be a premature and counterproductive step." Cuba also sat out the vote, saying there were still "diplomatic options to exhaust."
South Korea, the most vulnerable to any nuclear weapons the North might be trying to produce, said Pyongyang's actions "seriously endanger the peace and stability on the Korean peninsula and in the whole East Asian region."
But Seoul, which has taken the lead in efforts to negotiate an end to the crisis, said reporting the North to the council did not mean diplomacy would end.
That was ElBaradei's message as well. "The agency of course is not washing its hands of the matter," he told reporters. "This does not close doors to a diplomatic solution."
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer praised the IAEA action, calling it a "clear indication that the international community will not accept North Korea's nuclear program." He said the conflict pits North Korea against the world, not just the United States.
"This is a matter to be settled through diplomacy," Fleischer said.
Kenneth Brill, the chief U.S. representative on the IAEA board, discounted suggestions that the decision to send the issue to the Security Council overtaxed a U.N. system already scrambling to avert war in Iraq.
"I think the international community can walk and chew gum at the same time," he told The Associated Press.
The crisis began in October, when U.S. officials said North Korea had acknowledged having a nuclear weapons program in violation of a 1994 agreement.
The United States and its allies suspended oil shipments to the impoverished communist country. North Korea in turn expelled IAEA inspectors, disabled the agency's monitoring cameras, withdrew from a global nuclear arms-control treaty and said it would reactivate its main nuclear complex, frozen since 1994.
Underlining deep worries all around the populous peninsula, Japan urged the North on Wednesday to respond "immediately and positively" to the IAEA's demands for compliance.
Although the European Union praised the decision, its foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, told reporters in Seoul that the council should hold off on sanctions. Such action, he said, "will contribute to the opposite of what we want to obtain, which is defusing of the crisis."
The standoff comes at a particularly trying time for the nuclear agency, whose inspectors have been in Iraq since late November searching for evidence of atomic weaponry alongside U.N. counterparts searching hunting for signs of chemical or biological weapons. ElBaradei, however, has taken what he calls a "zero tolerance" approach toward what he termed North Korea's "nuclear brinkmanship."
The North accuses the United States, which maintains 37,000 troops in South Korea, of using concerns over nuclear weaponry as a pretext to invade. Russia said Tuesday it plans to launch fresh efforts to encourage direct talks between the United States and North Korea.
According to Petersen the problem is -- time is running out. Now South Korean officials harbor a new fear -- that the North is relishing the clout of being a nuclear power and no matter what options are on the table, is no longer willing to stop its nuclear march forward.